Being informed in a globally-connected world


I don’t remember when I first ventured into a supermarket. When I was a child we shopped locally; at the butchers for meat and sometimes eggs, at one of the corner stores for our general groceries and at times the bakery where I’d pull the crust from still-warm bread as I walked home. At the butcher’s my Mum would chat about the ‘best cuts’ of the week, find out about where the meat was from and support our local butcher. At one of the two or three corner stores we’d talk about fruits and vegetables with the Greek or Italian shopkeeper and again know where the food we ate originated, generally. On rare occasions we ate South African Smoked Cod that my Dad bought. I can still recall imagining in the map in my mind how this gamey-tasting cod had traveled across the oceans, carried in ships by the Roaring Forties, the trade winds that blow between southern Africa and Tasmania.

But that has all changed. Here in Hong Kong we can source food and products from around the globe, often at premium prices, often not. The fiasco of IKEA’s meatballs is a case in point. Meat, horse or otherwise is sourced in many countries, transported long distances for processing, packaged and sent around the world as cheap food. Here in Hong Kong IKEA meatballs were the same as eaten in 21 European countries as well as Thailand and the Dominican Republic*. Globalization of food, as we know, has been upon us a while.

Recently we had guests. And, as I am at times prone, I like to take guests to places in Hong Kong that tourists tend not to go. So off we went one Sunday hopping on and off ferries until we reached an island renowned for its local seafood served in restaurants lining the seafront. A great lunch it was; time to chat and catch up while watching local fisher-folk landing and selling their catches immediately in front of us while we ate local seafood. After the lunch we wandered about the island and ended up in a ‘wet market’. We were about to leave when we saw a gaggle of people at one stall. We wandered over and what seemed the most popular item for sale was beef; thin marinated beef steaks. I bought some and paid the princely sum of HKD40 for four steaks. That’s about USD 1.30 each. Being a curious person by nature I asked where the beef was from. Expecting to hear China, I was taken aback when I was told ‘Brazil’. Brazil, 18000 kilometres from Hong Kong**.

Imagine that, Brazilian beef for sale on an island in Hong Kong for USD 1.30 per steak. I was amazed. I wondered how this can be possible. I started wondering about the conditions under which the beef was grown, whether forests where cleared to provide such inexpensive meat, what feed was grown for the cattle, what energy footprint was being created, whether this was really ethical.

Last week I was cooking dinner and saw on the packet of chicken breasts a QR code. My phone has an app that scans and reads QR codes, those ubiquitous square squiggles of information. I wasn’t expecting too much when I scanned the code. But the result is below.


Like you, I now know my ‘chicken’ was MALE, slaughtered at 40 days and weighed in at 2.76 kilogrammes. A total surprise! I now know the farmer is Khun Wichaen, the veterinarian is Khun Waiyawoot and the husbandman is Khun Chatchawan, as well as the address of the farm just south of Bangkok. I do wonder too which of the ‘chickens’ in the photo made it into my packet of breasts. Do I need to know this? How does this benefit toward my relationship with the producer, or the local vendor? Is this information worthwhile? Is this information overload? What am I to do with it?

Yesterday, while I was again in our local supermarket, I had choices but little information around those choices. Let’s stick with chicken. On offer where three birds:

  • one from Brazil at HKD25 (USD3.25)
  • one organic from China at HKD50(USD6.50)
  • one organic free-range and from Australia at HKD245 (USD31.60)

Again Brazil has trumped up with low-cost, accessible food. Imagine that. Again though I am wondering about the chain of production of these chickens.

  • How can it be possible to feed, house, process and transport these birds 18000 kilometres across the globe?
  • How long did it take from slaughter to market?
  • What processes did these birds go through to arrive here?
  • How fresh are they?

Far too much unknown.

So what information do I want? With messages on a daily basis on the impact of overfishing, nationally sanctioned whaling for ‘research’, environmental destruction of forests to feed our food while many of our species go hungry globally, what do I want to know, what do I need to know?

I have questions, I have some answers. Like some students in our schools I wonder, are my questions the ‘right’ ones to make informed decisions?  Are the answers I find accurate? I feel too much removed from what I eat, how it got to me, how it was created.

I can though start with a wondering,  “is this is sustainable?”



Header image:

A ‘sense’ of home…

Home Walhalla


Prior to moving to Hong Kong my family and I lived for 6 wonderful years in Hanoi. When our time came to leave I, somewhat tongue in cheek, sent out the usual ‘keep in touch’ email to the faculty and added,  “We look forward to seeing many of you again in one of our island homes: Hong Kong, Bali or Tasmania”. And being the great people they were with whom we worked, I received more than my fair-share of emails back.

I wonder though, is that actually possible; to have three homes?

What is home? Where is home? This is something I often find myself wondering, simply as I feel ‘at home’ in a variety of places. Although some, usually due to Facebook postings,  give me pangs of longing when friends upload photos or stories of some of my favourite places. Photos of the streets of Hanoi, the beaches of The Bahamas, the vistas of Tasmania easily bring me to a point of longing, an urge to reconnect and a ‘sense’ of home.

For many of you reading this, who have lived an ‘international’ transient lifestyle where you’ve travelled the world, seen amazing sights, met and made strong friendships with great people and ‘dragged’ the kids along based often on our ‘adult’ whims or job opportunities may understand how we have made somewhat of a rod for our backs. It is well documented that Third Culture Kid’s (TCK’s) have issues with the question, “Where is home?” But what of we TKA’s, the TKAdults? We who have decided to live away from our broader families, who seek out and embrace differences, who involve ourselves in ‘different’ cultures while always being on the outside, who travel widely, who seek out our unknowns, all for a host of  reasons.  Some of us, unsurprisingly, have developed a life of homelessness, of transience, of ‘green-grass’ living, a collection of places that we connect with as ‘home’.

So how is it for TCK’s? I clearly recall staying at a Red Roof Inn while visiting Disney World in Florida when some ‘locals’ overheard us as a family talking. We must have sounded different. My son Oliver, who at the time was around 12 or 13, was asked ‘where is home?’. He replied, “Wherever my Mum, Dad and sister are.” That response made me both pleased and sad. I knew that at some point in his life his Mum and Dad and sister where not going to be there with him. I knew that his viewpoint and ‘sense’ of home would probably change.

But does it? Now we are a family who live in different continents. And recently we, as a family, got together. We flew from Mumbai, Hong Kong and Melbourne to be together. While flying to meet up I had a mental image of arrows across the Earth as we all headed to one location. To be at home. Being together again made me feel at home. I got the ‘sense’ of home. The sense of grounded-ness. Luckily we were surrounded by mementos of our family; some photos, some furniture, some paintings all evoking memories and helping build that ‘sense’.

The house at the top of this blog is an abandoned stone cottage in a small gold-mining community, Walhalla, in country Victoria, Australia. It is where, 91 years ago last month, my Mum was born. I haven’t been to the house for probably over a decade and have only been to Walhalla three times I can recall.  However whenever I look at this photo, or go there I have a ‘sense’ of being ‘at home’. I feel I know it. Yet, the only time I was there with my Mum was when I was 6, attending the funeral of my grandmother, almost 50 years ago. So how can it make me feel ‘at home’, what is it that brings about the ‘sense’ of home. Or is it the comfortable sense of belonging that memories of my Mum evoke?

And so to schools. How can our students, who are sometimes transient, sometimes long-termers, have a sense of home in the place they spend many hours every day? If the ‘sense’ of home is due to the acknowledgement of belonging, a link to the place that makes us feel welcomed with a strong sense of ownership, that builds emotions that can evoke pangs of longing. What memories will the experiences students hold of their schooling? How do we develop the feelings of belonging, being welcomed, ownership that our schools should perhaps be focusing upon?

Let’s start with how we name our classes. My class was often 5PW or 6PW. Whose class was it? Clearly it was mine, my initials where what identified it. So why not allow the kids to decide what the class is called. Is there really anything wrong with 6Gargoyles? 6Numbats, 6longestnamewecanthinkof? How can we develop, for the kids, a ‘sense’ of home. It may lead to responsibility, risk-taking, respect, belonging, ownership.

..and if you are interested in the voices of some eloquent TCK’s sit back, relax and listen in on Adrian Bautista’s excellent video

Where do the children play…..

Billy-cart, nectarines and friends

The smell and taste of nectarines evokes strong memories for me, particularly of a time, almost a half century ago spent with my billy-cart. The large nectarine tree in my backyard had an avalanche of branches that seemed to reach the ground and it was under here that I parked my billy-cart. My billy-cart (soapbox, gravity cart – depending on where you are from) was made when I was about 5 or 6 and I guess primarily by my Dad with a little help from me. I can still recall vividly the apple crate it was based on, the splodge of white paint across the seat, how it was steered by feet and an old rope, and how we tried to stop it with a make-shift brake made of some scrap wood lever nailed onto the frame as a brake.
Over time I began to build other billy-carts with my friends made of scrap and found timber, pram wheels, whatever we could find. They were all built using hammers and nails and saws and any manner of tools we found in our sheds at home. We’d have races down footpaths and the super-steep lane at the end of my street where someone was always on look out for any potential hazards such as the rare car daring to intrude onto ‘our’ racetrack as we ‘sped’ across Lord Street. In doing so my friends and I learned how to build, scavenge, persist and fail. We had the ‘normal’ share of bumps and bruises as we fell off our carts, never running to adults for help. It was a carefree existence in some ways.
My home at that time was a small weatherboard house with a corrugated iron roof comprising two bedrooms, a ‘living’ room, lounge room, kitchenette, a laundry with a ‘copper’ that was used to boil the water and an outside ‘dunny’. We had a small backyard, the property being 100feet x 40 feet, but there was space for a small vegetable garden, a few fruit trees and a place to park the family car.

Not many years ago I heard a representative of the World Wildlife Fund speak of their work with children and developing ‘experiential learning’ in Hong Kong. Their representative said that 40% of people live on or above the 14th floor. This intrigued me and stayed with me to the point that when I came for interview in Hong Kong I mentioned this statistic in terms of the challenge to make the learning for students to be engaged in ‘experiential’ and focussed on ‘doing’ and ‘making’. At interview I was told that 50% of people live on or above the 15th floor; even more intriguing. So I decided to find out for myself with a ‘straw poll’ of Year 5 and 6 students at my current school. I asked four questions:
• Who lives on or above the 15th floor?
• Who has a balcony with some plants growing on it?
• Who has access to their own garden?
• Who attends external academic lessons outside of school hours?

The results based on roughly 300 students is:
• Who lives on or above the 15th floor?= 34.6%
• Who has a balcony with some plants growing on it? = 29.3%
• Who has access to their own garden? = 8%
• Who attends external academic lessons outside of school hours? = 61%

So there we have it. One in three has some connection with plants and roughly 24 students have access to something I, and my friends all took for granted, access to a garden. I must declare bias here, not only against the ‘drill and kill’ approach to external academic lessons, but the lost opportunities for outside unsupervised play.

  • I wonder where is the childhood where choice and unplanned time has gone.
  • I wonder what has happened to a time where ‘helicopter’ or ‘tiger moms’ did not exist to hovering over and structuring the lives of  their children so they may explore and make sense of the world as they want.
  • I wonder where are the opportunities to build, scavenge, persist and fail.
  • I wonder how children of today, as adults, will have a sense of connection to what many of us feel toward being able to solve real-life problems. To be able to foresee problems and solve them using our hands. To be able to use tools with a fair degree of safety and comfort.
  • I wonder how, if children do not have access to plants and the opportunity to grow and harvest, they will understand the importance of soils, rain, time for fallow periods.
  • I wonder whether its up to us in schools to help the children learn about how to build, scavenge, persist and fail; safely.

As I alluded to in my initial blog; to tinker. If it is our responsibility to tinker and explore, then how to we build schools that are places of learning, both guided and unstructured, not only teaching. How do we create places of learning that build growing and harvesting into the curriculum. Places that allow children to experiment in a more unsupervised manner and learn to fail as a way of learning. Or am I just dreaming?

And for further thought……

No place for claustrophobics! Hong Kong’s forest of skyscrapers

Yusuf Islam – Where do the children play…..

Learning by doing: why we’ve embraced a practical primary curriculum … a practical approach to learning in a crowded inner city school


Tinkering School

As a kid growing up my friends and I used to build, investigate, fail and create. It was the norm, and today, for many kids I’ve worked alongside I’m not sure it is. So for this, my first ‘wander’ I’d like to offer the work of Gever Tulley and his Tinkering School. A place to dream, make, fail forward and enjoy building. This is what, in many ways I saw as the norm growing up. It’s what I wish all kids could do too.

Please click on Tinkering School above to learn more.